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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

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The last waltz: The passing of Elliott Smith

The last fifteen years of popular music have generated artists that can widely be described as disposable. With a few exceptions, the mainstream has been dominated by pointless, manufactured groups that have heavily outnumbered the complex and meaningful artists sought out by real music lovers. Though the spotlight has focused on everything from hair bands to teen idols, there were always those few artists who stood in the background, emotionally piecing together the songs that represent what music as an art form is meant to be.

Since 1993, that was where Elliott Smith loomed with his mellow voice and guitar, composing songs that rivaled any musician of the past 50 years. Sadly, as of Oct. 21, there will be no new Elliott Smith recordings. On that Tuesday, he took his own life. He was 34 years old.

Smith’s musical anthology is the product of two mediums. On one hand, he was one-fourth of a Portland-based alternative band named Heatmiser. There he shared vocal and songwriting duties with Neil Gust, a talented musician who went on to moderate success with a different band named No. 2.

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The three releases by Heatmiser spanned from 1993-1996 and are rarely described as more than mediocre. Though the recordings are decent, it is evident on these albums that Smith molded his writing to satisfy the vision of the entire group. It was the time Smith spent outside the group that allowed him to truly show his musical ability.

The year was 1994. The alternative rock revolution was beginning to fade, the pop revolution had not yet begun and most mainstream listeners didn’t even know what an acoustic guitar was. It was in this year that Elliott Smith released his first solo album entitled Roman Candle. It was through this album’s stripped-down acoustics where generation-X was introduced to one of its only great singer/songwriters.

Though the album didn’t fully capture Smith’s capability as a musician, songs like “No Name #1” and “Roman Candle” gave listeners a preview of his musical abilities. It was the laid back vocal delivery and smooth guitar playing on these songs that brought swift critical and underground praise.

A year later, Smith returned with a self-titled second solo record. The style of the album didn’t deviate much from his previous effort, but it was a solid recording and continued his streak of critical praise. It wasn’t until two years later that he would record the album that defined him as one of the most talented musicians of our time.

The album was Either/Or, and spread over twelve tracks was an eclectic compilation of fast and slow, rough and smooth acoustic songs incomparable to anything else of the time. Songs like “2:45 AM,” “Say Yes,” “Speed Trials” and, possibly his greatest song, “Angeles,” help to create what is essentially a folk rock masterpiece. Smith once again earned critical praise and continued to expand his relatively small, but ever-growing audience.

In the same year, he contributed songs to the soundtrack for “Good Will Hunting.” One of those tracks, “Miss Misery,” which was unreleased up to that point, was nominated for an Oscar. It was the movie’s exposure that enabled Smith to reach his largest audience, and mainstream America got a taste of what it had been missing out on.

He went on to release two more full-length records, XO in 1998 and Figure 8 two years later. And, while the quality of many artists’ albums tends to fade as their careers move on, Smith’s albums never did. Songs like “Waltz #2” and “Son of Sam” help complete these two recordings and show that Smith didn’t fall short of any high expectations his previous works had built for him.

Elliott Smith brought to music a style and voice that cannot be duplicated or replaced. He was an individual in a time of conformity and the voice for a sub-culture of a generation. His songs of addiction, relationships, loneliness and life provided the soundtrack for countless lives. And while there is definitely more to Elliott Smith than just his music, it is the songs he composed that will live forever, repeating inside the memories of those willing to listen.

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